By: James A. Climer, Esq.
Police use of deadly force has been a hot topic in the news recently. Events like the Ferguson, Missouri riots and the shooting of Tamir Rice as well as the Michael Brelo verdict in Cleveland have spurred countless news stories, blog posts and editorials concerning the propriety of police officers’ use of deadly force. The writers of these pieces have a luxury that police officers do not have when they encounter dangerous situations: time for thought and study. How can law enforcement officers avoid civil liability under 42 USC § 1983 when courts, attorneys and others have hours to sift through reams of confusing and sometimes conflicting cases to determine the proper legal course of action, while officers often have only a few seconds in chaotic situations to decide what to do? That’s the reason for the affirmative defense called qualified good faith immunity.
Qualified immunity protects public officials carrying out discretionary functions from civil liability for monetary damages under § 1983 unless their actions are prohibited by “clearly established law.” In other words, if the judges and lawyers can’t agree on what the law is, police officers and other public officials shouldn’t be called to task after the fact for violating it.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently reminded courts and the bar how to determine whether law is “clearly established” for purposes of qualified immunity in Mullenix v. Luna, 577 U.S. ___ (2015). In Mullenix, Tulia, Texas police attempted to execute an arrest warrant for a man spotted at a drive-in restaurant. They were led on a high-speed chase during which the suspect, who appeared to be intoxicated, reached speeds of 85 to 110 miles per hour and told a Tulia police dispatcher that he would shoot at police officers if the pursuit was not abandoned.
Tulia police set up tire spikes in three locations in an attempt to stop the suspect. Trooper Mullenix of the Texas Department of Public Safety also responded to the pursuit, intending to set up tire spikes near an overpass. After learning that officers were already setting out tire spikes near the overpass, Trooper Mullenix became concerned for their safety given the suspect’s threats, and Mullenix considered shooting at the suspect’s car to disable it. Trooper Mullenix asked for permission from a supervisor to carry out his plan but it was unclear whether he heard the supervisor tell him to see if the spikes worked first. Before the suspect reached the tire spikes, Trooper Mullenix shot at the suspect’s car, apparently intending to disable it, but instead hit the suspect causing his death.
The suspect’s estate sued Trooper Mullenix under 42 USC § 1983 alleging the use of excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The trial court denied a motion for summary judgment asserting qualified immunity on behalf of Trooper Mullenix and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.
The Supreme Court reversed and found that Trooper Mullenix was entitled to qualified immunity. The Court first made it clear that it was only addressing the qualified immunity issue and not whether a constitutional violation had occurred. Id. at 4. The Court then rejected the basis asserted by the Fifth Circuit for its decision, the generalized principle that a police officer may not “use deadly force against a fleeing felon who does not pose a sufficient threat of harm to the officer or others.” Id. at 5-6.
Instead, the Court reminded the bench and bar that the correct inquiry is whether the law prohibited the officer’s conduct in the “situation [she] confronted.” Id. at 6 citing Brosseau v. Haugen, 543 U.S. 194, 199. While case law does not need to exactly match the facts of the case under consideration, it must be clear enough to indicate to a reasonably competent officer that his/her actions are illegal “beyond debate.” Id. at 7. Noting that it had never ruled the use of deadly force to be illegal in a vehicular pursuit, Id. at 8, the Court further reviewed a number of decisions from other courts and found that they created at best a “hazy legal backdrop” against which to judge the actions of Trooper Mullenix. Given this uncertainty in the law, Trooper Mullenix should have been granted qualified immunity.
Mullenix does not represent a major shift in the law. However, it does provide a strong reminder to the bench, bar and public officials that qualified immunity should be granted unless case law indisputably establishes that an official’s actions are illegal.
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